Researchers have developed an artificial womb that could potentially help premature babies develop their lungs and other organs and reduce the risk of mortality and morbidity.

The researchers from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia tested the extra-uterine device in 8 fetal lambs physiologically equivalent to a 23- or 24-week gestation human infant. To accurately replicate the flow dynamics in utero, the researchers used a double umbilical artery and single umbilical vein (UA/UV) cannulation.

The ‘biobag’ extra-uterine device is filled with amniotic fluid and pumps the baby’s heart via the umbilical cord into a low-resistance external oxygenator in lieu of the placenta in exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Five lamb fetuses of 105 to 108 days of gestation were run for 25–28 days, and three fetuses of 115 to 120 days of gestation were run for 20–28 days. Runs were terminated at 28 days due to animal protocol limitations rather than any instability, indicating that support of these animals could be maintained for longer than 4 weeks. The lambs showed normal breathing and swallowing, and had normal growth, neurological function and organ maturation.

B) shows a lamb on day 4 of support and C) shows the same lamb on day 28 of support

“If we can develop an extra-uterine system to support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies,” said Alan W. Flake, MD, lead author and director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, “This system is potentially far superior to what hospitals can currently do for a 23-week-old baby born at the cusp of viability. This could establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants.”

The authors also stated that the technology could be extended to other therapeutic applications such as treatment of fetal growth retardation related to placental insufficiency.

“We’re in the process of interacting with the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] so it’s not inconceivable that we could be talking about a clinical trial in one to two years from now,” said Dr. Flake.

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